There are those songs in the old repertoire that pluck at the heart strings, among which I’d easily count “Amazing Grace.” But recently, I’ve been played upon by another grand old gospel tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” My modern love affair with the song was probably sparked by two unlikely sources, namely Alison Krauss and Kanye West (no, not some strange, head-scratching duet). But Alison performs the song in her beautiful bluegrass harmonies on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, while Kanye’s album The College Dropout introduces a short segment of the melody. Both are interesting renderings of “I’ll Fly Away,” though the version that I hold dearest is, without question, that of the one-off group of John Medeski with Robert Randolph & the Family Band, on their album The Word. The melody begins solemnly, almost whiny, but after this prologue, a joyful celebration begins earnestly. It undoubtedly harkens to a country feeling, something akin to the lovechild of the holy gospel music and the devil’s music’s cousin in bluegrass. One gets the sensation that the full blown party is always a few rhythmic beats away, but that doesn’t mean a single butt is left in a chair by the time this one gets going.
Of course, such a joyful song spawned some digging for other great versions of “I’ll Fly Away,” and I came up with several great ones, by The Blind Boys of Alabama, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Mississippi John Hurt, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and of course, Etta James. While Hurt’s version is woefully short (just under a minute), it might come closest to preserving the spirit of the song most faithfully. Etta’s version is where it’s at! The difference is astounding here, to hear the same song in such a broad spectrum; where Hurt’s version is clearly respectful of the sadness of the song, Etta’s clearly takes pure joy in the result, with the idea being that departing from the Earth for Heaven is especially sweet when escaping the hardship encountered in the song.
I haven’t heard enough written about the history of the song, but it’s always great to come across different interpretations on it, which in a sense is writing its history as the song continues to inspire.